Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik: a review

The overarching question is “Did Xerox let the PARC technologies escape?” And the answer is “Of course.” Of course.

Hiltzik argues–successfully, I think–that the question oversimplifies the reality, in several dimensions: Xerox did use some of the Palo Alto Research Center creations, Xerox didn’t really have the ability/agility to implement others, and that clashing cultures made some gains difficult. He also explores the strengths and weaknesses of Bob Taylor’s management practices at some length (an interesting thing, actually, as I’m also reading Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late, which also features Taylor as a key player). Finally, he points out, Xerox continued to fund those rebels it supposedly didn’t listen to.

Well-written & researched. Each chapter is thematic, and mixes contextual explanation with word portraits of the key players. The book is very much focused on PARC’s computer and system projects, but aware of external events occurring more or less simultaneously with them and how those interacted. It acknowledges, but doesn’t really explore, the non-computer activities occurring in the center.

All in all, one of the better histories of early computing.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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